By Hafawa Rebhi
At the start of this academic year, an eight-year-old Tunisian boy named Zakaria was turned away by his school because of poor vision.
The student’s mother issued a call of distress on social media. The minister of Education, Néji Jalloul, responded to her plea: he drove to the student’s house in the northern town of Manouba, accompanied the bespectacled boy to the school and ensured he was enrolled.
“I can’t express my happiness. My son is accepted and loved,” Zakaria’s mother said, speaking from in front of the headmaster’s office. “That feeling of rejection doesn’t exist anymore.”
As many as 150 million children under the age of 14 are living with disabilities around the world, according to a 2011 report by the World Bank and World Health Organization.
The percentage of disabled children who are not schooled varies from country to country, but in general they are less likely to start school than other children and have lower rates of staying and being promoted in school. Disabled girls are particularly disadvantaged, and the gap between disabled and non-disabled students is greatest in poor countries.
None of these children should have to suffer rejection.
In Tunisia, many citizens praised the Education minister on social media after he had taken Zakaria under his arm. But others criticized Jalloul, saying the nearsighted boy had no right to be in a regular school and that he interfered with the learning process in the classroom.
Zakaria is one of almost 3,000 students with minor or mild disabilities attending primary schools throughout the North African country. Nearly 18,000 children are studying in special education centers run by associations that received funding from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
None of these children should have to suffer rejection, for their right to education is protected under law.
Tunisia is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which ensures that disabled students have access to free and compulsory education. And Tunisia’s two-year-old constitution stipulates that the state must protect the disabled from all forms of discrimination.
Although the number of schools that accept handicapped students has grown in the past decade, many children drop out. In a 2014 report, the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) said there were 918 students with moderate handicaps being educated in middle schools in 2012-13, but only 710 in high school.
Supported by Handicap International and the UN, civil society organizations are trying to reverse this trend. Run mainly by persons with disabilities, these organizations are calling for new laws that are compliant with the constitution and Tunisia’s international commitments. The 2002 national law on education and schooling, for example, does not prohibit discrimination based on disability.
Through workshops with the government representatives, activists are working to make laws more effective.
Taoufik Kroumi, a member of the Tunisian Organization for the Defense of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, welcomed a recent ministerial decision to make all Tunisian schools inclusive. But, he says: “It is not enough to open doors to children with disabilities to say that the school has become inclusive.”
For Kroumi, teachers and administrative staff need to be trained to ensure disable students are fully integrated in the schools. He is pushing for more teachers of sign language in the west-central province of Kasserine where he works.
In addition to professional human resources, the 366 schools of Kasserine — Tunisia’s least developed province — need improvements to infrastructure to ensure they are accessible to all disabled students.
“There are no disabled persons,” Kroumi said. “There are only disabling environments.”
Hafawa Rebhi is an independent Tunisian journalist. She has been covering the transition in Tunisia since 2011, with a special focus on public policies, social and economic rights, migration, development and energy. She is fluent in English, Arabic, French and Italian.